Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: Macroinformation.org & Knatz.com / Teaching / Society / Social Order / Civilization (NoHier) / Politics /
’60s ‘Nam in New York
Prior to college, much as I worked on my vocabulary, I don’t believe I worried much about the meaning of the word liberal. I understood that the bulk of its usage was political, and “definition” and “political” live at antipodes. Even supposedly philosophical terms may change meaning, unannounced, from paragraph to paragraph: if not within the sentence. The closest I came to a handle on the word liberal was that it meant “open minded.” So, if anyone said I was liberal, I wouldn’t mind.
Don’t bother to correct me: I now realize that few meant “open” by the word liberal.
Columbia was widely regarded not just as a purveyor of liberal arts, but as liberal in its contemporary meanings. After college I was once again confused, but less disinterested, regarding liberal’s contemporary meanings. I knew this and that friend was declaredly liberal, but I had no idea what it was that they were supporting. One old friend married a woman who used the word, of herself and of her favored candidates, more than anyone I’d encountered. Her favorite candidate was a congressman from Manhattan’s west side: Ryan. Ryan, the Liberal. I was urged to attend a powwow at Ryan’s Riverside Drive apartment. I did.
This was the mid-1960s. Vietnam was not yet a daily topic for the majority. As a Christian I was against war. As a conscientious objector I was extra against war (though I’d let them draft me rather than go to jail for five years). As an American though I thought some wars were more justifiable than others. I’d resisted believing the propaganda of school (as I’d failed to resist the propaganda of church), but still, there was little in my head that the school (or church) hadn’t put there. President Johnson had tricked me into believing that we were in Vietnam by a legitimate invitation and that while there we had been illegitimately attacked. When 100% of what one hears is lies, how should one know better?
OK: all that’s just scene setting: here’s what I want to tell.
Whatever it was that Ryan had hoped to discuss, only one subject was permitted by the most energetic of the attendees: Vietnam. I was accustomed to vague demands: “End the war!” “Get Out!” The guys who pressed forward in the crowd the hardest and spat their questions with machine rapidity into the narrowest of openings were more specific than anything I’d ever dreamed of in politics. I’d used college the way flotsam uses a river; these guys had used their time to amass facts, to sharpen their minds like razors. I was wholly intimidated: and wholly impressed. One guy in particular seemed to know everything: dates, budgets, commanders, targets, troop movements … They must have been facts because Ryan never challenged any of them. Ryan himself seemed stuck in the vagaries so much more familiar to me.
Ryan was getting pilloried. And these guys were his supporters! That is, they had no one better to support.
Whatever questions were fired at Ryan, demands were also articulated. I don’t remember any of the words in the one direction: couldn’t have repeated them at the time, I didn’t know enough to hear most of what was said. But I clearly remember the motif that came back in the other direction. I quote: with 100% authority: “I can’t.”
I invent some demands as (accurate) symbols:
“Stop American troops from going to BingWa.”
“Oppose appropriations for the XYZ.”
“I can’t.” …
Any half-way political guy could do better at inventing the symbols.
After an hour or so one guy had clearly become the principle antagonist from the crowd. Those at his elbows in the front rank quited their jostling as they seemed to like his questions and demands better than their own. More and more there were just two voices: this guy’s and Ryan’s.
Suddenly the guy abandoned one field and jumped to another. “Then get” (again, symbols, not quotes) “American troops out of …” And a long list followed: each item phrased as a separate question / request / demand. Turkey, Greece, Chile … The guy had a map of the military in his head.
By some new timing the questions slowed. Ryan had stopped answering. We seemed to be in Act III. The drama had ceased to be either tragedy or farce. Everyone waited for the ashen Ryan to speak.
“I can’t,” he said.
One portmanteau answer to all the suggestions, requests, demands.
What shocked me the most was the guy’s inventory of US military in what seemed like everybody else’s country. The presence seemed to be confirmed by Ryan’s total lack of denial at all specifics. I’d never heard such assured specifics in my life relating to anything political or military. There was no “Win one for the Gipper”; it was all Coach Belichick’s play book: relentlessly specific.
So: at least on that evening, liberal didn’t seem to mean open-minded. Neither did it seam to mean Let’s expect the government to do everything for everybody. And it certainly had nothing to do with bleeding hearts or sympathy for the down-trodden. It seemed to mean only one thing: I can’t.
I slipped out shortly thereafter. I can’t imagine who would have stayed. There was nothing left to be said: unless it was democratic representation by the totally helpless.
(I was surprised that Ryan’s apartment was as modest as it proved. Oh, it was nicer than my Riverside Drive apartment; but it would easily have fit inside my mother-in-law’s apartment (my mother-in-law’s apartment would have fit inside any number of my neighbors’ tall-ceilinged Riverside Drive river-view apartments.)